Creating her own period of alternate history gave Joan Aiken the freedom to exercise her wild imagination, and also provided her with the opportunity to use a vast array of stored knowledge from her wide reading and her life-long fascination with history, mythology, the natural sciences, and stories of travel to far away lands. Use of these elements, combined with a riotous ear for dialogue and a facility for creating eccentric characters meant she could fill her invented worlds with a wonderful variety of bizarre detail, which, in her fast moving and free wheeling plots could be employed pretty much to her heart’s content.
But sometimes she did go rather over the top…!
Her general ebullience and the enjoyment of her own creative powers perhaps reached its peak in The Whispering Mountain, a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles series of books, set in Wales, and making use of a good deal of Welsh language and colloquial expression. The story also contains characters as varied as The Seljuk of Rum – a foreign potentate who speaks in a language (tongue, talk, dialect, parlance!) of his own taken straight from Roget’s Thesaurus – and a Prince of Wales with a list of Christian names that covers almost all periods of the English Monarchy, but who speaks broad Scots. On top of this there are a pair of dastardly villains who speak in their own Victorian underground language – known as Thieves Cant – a pair of peevy coves who mizzle at the first sign of trouble.
Grappling with all these characters is the sympathetic young hero – a learned, lonely small boy called Owen, who is mercilessly bullied by the other boys in his village, because as an avid reader he has too many fancy ideas and an overwhelming desire to share them… Owen is armed with a small book that has taught him all he needs to know, very like one that Joan herself had treasured from her childhood, which goes by the marvellous title:
“Arithmetic, Grammar, Botany &c; Thefe Pleafing Sciences made familiar to the Capacities of Youth”
This and Owen’s own natural intelligence finally allow him to win round the bullies, treating one boy’s wounds from a wolf bite with a cobweb bandage, or making a rope from strands of “Clematis Vitalba or Virginiana” which, as he can’t resist explaining, perhaps to the bewilderment of the other boys: “is a beautiful plant covered with white bloffoms or furry fruit clufters”… As we discover, the typeface in his little book of knowledge is so antiquated that it has ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s just to add to the general confusion and charm.
Using, among other skills learned from his precious book, this plant knowledge and his mathematical capabilities, he saves the gang of boys from a flood by building a rope swing from the Clematis vine to get them all across a gorge:
‘ “To find the strength of a rope,”‘ he informs his companions, ‘”you should square the circumference in inches and divide by three, for the breaking strain in tons.” I am joining these two pieces together with a rolling hitch, as they are of slightly different sizes; I shall secure one end to the tree by means of a timber hitch, thus -‘
‘Winding a spare strand of creeper round his waist, and slinging the crossbow on his back, he shinned up the tree with great agility and tied the end of his rope to a suitable branch; then he laid hold of the rope and slid down it to within four feet of the lower end.
“Letth cut the rope now, eh, Hwfa?” whispered Soth, but Hwfa, watching Owen’s actions with the utmost interest, took no notice of his henchman.
“What’ll he do now, he can never drop from there? – Ah, I see – he is going to swing!”‘
(Oh yes, and poor Soth has a lisp…!)
Joan not only gleaned her information from antiquated instruction manuals, but also from the Victorian or Edwardian children’s books her Canadian mother had brought over to England, and introduced to the family. Particular favourites were Ernest Seton Thompson’s Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known – written from the author’s own experience of being a lonely little boy in a strange country. He was in a fact a Scot growing up in Canada, and to escape from his bullying father, he spent much time on his own, studying nature and Indian lore out in the wild. Joan Aiken experienced the same kind of pleasure as a rather isolated child growing up in the freedom of the Sussex countryside, imagining herself in a far wilder landscape, surviving with these books as her guides and companions.
As an adult she created opportunities, as here in The Whispering Mountain, to share the mysterious magic of all this language, knowledge and spirit of adventure. The exotic and obscure vocabulary that her reading offered her as a small child, although it was presumably bewildering to the children of her own home village, still fired their curiosity and so encouraged her desire to tell wild and wonderful stories. When she did become a writer she was determined never to underestimate the ingenuity of her readers by talking down to them. She was convinced that putting old and new ideas and imaginative language into an exciting context would help to bring her fantasy worlds to life, and communicate the ideas and customs of other times and countries to her readers.
But even she admitted that sometimes she got a bit too carried away, and possibly, in this particular story – as the Seljuk of Rum might say – became:
‘Fantastical, Rhapsodic, Whimsical, Absurd, or even Obscure….’
The Whispering Mountain, the prequel to the Wolves Chronicles is now published as a Puffin Book, so that the whole series is now in print together for the first time.
See all the books at Joan Aiken.com
Random House/Red Fox/Penguin Children’s Books Joan Aiken page
To see a film of Joan talking about The Wolves Chronicles, and reading from her own copy of the little Book of Knowledge visit the website here.